J. T. ALLISON'S SACRED HARP SINGERS
notes by John Bealle and Joyce Cauthen
In the storied history of Sacred Harp singing, the 1927-1928 recordings by J. T. Allison's ensemble represent a curious anomaly. For these recordings are rare instances of the convergence of two important cultural movements of the southeastern U.S.-the emerging country music recording industry and the impressive tradition of singing religious folk music from shape-note tunebooks. The Allison group traveled from their homes in Birmingham and Moody, Alabama, to the legendary Gennett recording studio in Richmond, Indiana. What things led them to do this is of much importance here, as is what things led many others not to.
The Sacred Harp
The music the Allisons recorded would have been sung directly from
The Sacred Harp, a book first compiled in 1844 in Hamilton, Georgia.
This musical volume is a shape-note tunebook, meaning that the music
was printed in shape-note musical notation to aid in music reading.
The Sacred Harp uses four shapes, so its music is sometimes called
"fasola" music for the names of the notes of the scale,
"fa-sol-la-fa-sol-la-mi-fa" (as opposed to the more-familiar
"do-re-mi" seven-shape system, "do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do").
The shape-note system derives from the singing school tradition
installed in eighteenth century New England whereby public singing
classes were held with the purpose of improving the music in the
churches. Around 1800, shape-note notation was devised-assigning
shapes to the note heads to represent degrees of the musical scale-to
aid in learning and reading. The movement spread south and west
with the population, accumulating local styles and repertoires in
the process. This practice spread widely in music publishing, so
that by the mid-nineteenth century there were many tunebooks printed
in shape-note notation. The shape-note system declined over the
nineteenth century as the now-familiar round-note notation was increasingly
adopted in church music and European art music.
Among the many books in its genre, The Sacred Harp achieved distinction
largely due to its amazing longevity-it has been in print and in
active use continuously since the first edition. In this, much is
owed to the promotional strategies of one of its compilers, B. F.
White. In the year following the book's publication, White and his
colleagues devised an institution, the public singing convention,
that would ultimately provide the sustained usage with which the
book is now associated. That is, rather than merely promoting the
book personally as most other tunebook compilers did, White assembled
a committee of officers for the convention whose membership could
be passed on, thereby providing an organizational structure that
would endure after his death. As Sacred Harp singing spread, the
singing convention system was pivotal in providing for local proprietorship
in new areas.
The course charted by the convention system had a profound impact on the way Sacred Harp was experienced throughout its history. The mainstay of Sacred Harp tradition was and still is the large public gatherings-all-day singings or multiple-day conventions-where throngs of singers gather for an intense musical and spiritual experience. There the emphasis is on participation and not performance-most everyone comes to sing, and there is often no discernible audience. Sacred Harp singings incorporate components of the singing school tradition-such as singing the names of the shape notes for each song before singing the text-but there is no formal instruction. As many as a hundred songs are sung in a day, most at "full throttle." A typical singer, by one colorful account, wouldn't cross the street to hear Sacred Harp music, but would walk a mile in the snow to sing it.
The Allisons traveled 500 miles to the Gennett studios in Richmond, Indiana, to record Sacred Harp with the hope of selling the recordings at home. It is important to recall the musical environment from which they came. More so than any other style of music that entered the country music system of genres, Sacred Harp singing featured a performance environment that predated country music recordings, that was only minimally influenced by the style of music featured on recordings, and that endured moments of exposure in popular culture with little evidence of being absorbed by it.
Recorded Country Music
A likely impetus for the Allison recordings came not from Sacred Harp tradition but from the popularity of recorded country music which, at that time, was a practice still in its infancy. Before the 1920s the recording industry grew slowly from an indulgence of the wealthy to a more accessible outlet for recorded orchestral, band, and pop vocal music on 78rpm discs. Studios in northern cities were geographically inaccessible to Southern folk musicians, and Southern folk music was culturally inaccessible to studio executives. By the 1920s, however, competition among companies and the emergence of radio forced executives to seek new markets for records.
In this environment, industry talent scouts ventured out of the studio to record regional or topical music, to be marketed later in the area where it was popular. The most famous of these talent scouts was Okeh Records' Ralph Peer, who brought a portable studio to Atlanta in 1923 and in a rented loft auditioned and recorded local talent assembled by the Atlanta Okeh sales representative. Spurred by the astounding popularity of these recordings, competing companies-Columbia, Vocalion, Brunswick, Victor, and Gennett-clamored to assemble field studios and record regional music.
Brunswick was the first to strike, recording the Original Sacred
Harp Choir in New York City in 1922. Okeh recorded two titles in
1924 in Atlanta by the Georgia Sacred Harp Quartette, and followed
in 1928 with a more substantial series by two ensembles, Charles
Butt's Sacred Harp Singers and the Okeh Atlanta Sacred Harp Singers.
Victor issued only a few titles by two ensembles, George Long and
his Singers, recorded in 1927 in Memphis, and Hamp Reynolds's Sacred
Harp Singers, recorded in 1928 in Atlanta. Columbia organized three
sessions in 1928, notably including ensembles from the renowned
Denson family. Only a month after the Densons recorded for Columbia
in Atlanta, they recorded four titles for Brunswick in Birmingham,
and then a substantial series of at least twenty for Bluebird in
In the early development of commercial country music, Gennett had
a special position that warrants some discussion. In addition to
the accessibility of its main studio in Richmond, Indiana, Gennett
had another advantage over its competitors. Its affiliate in the
recording business, the Starr Piano Company, had a piano showroom
in Birmingham, Alabama, and it was there the company set up the
third-floor studio where the Allisons recorded in 1927.
Among the recording companies, Gennett took the keenest interest
in Sacred Harp. Their complete Sacred Harp catalog, 32 sides by
the Allisons and 21 by Dye's Sacred Harp Singers, was more than
double the number recorded by any other company.
There is little historical information on the group or their association with Gennett. The Allisons are not remembered as a prominent Sacred Harp family, although some knowledge of the recordings has passed on within the family to current family members. Gennett has no detailed records of the recording, except to note that it did take place. The Birmingham News announced the local sessions, giving some sense of the local importance of the event. From these sources, we can in some fashion reconstruct the circumstances that led to the recordings reproduced here.
The Story behind the Recordings
Late in May of 1928 five well-dressed men boarded a train in Birmingham,
Alabama, bound for Richmond, Indiana and the Gennett Record Company.
Their mission was to record selections from the old "four note"
song book, The Sacred Harp. How G. T. Allison's Sacred Harp Singers
became recording artists is an interesting, yet typical, story in
the history of early recordings.
Despite being known primarily for its early Jazz recordings (which
included impressive works by such noteworthy artists as King Oliver,
Jelly Roll Morton, Bix Beiderbecke and the New Orleans Rhythm Kings),
the Gennett label actually recorded any music for which there might
be a perceived market. Perhaps Gordon Soule-head of the technical
staff of Gennett's temporary Birmingham, Alabama studio-realized
the potential sales of Sacred Harp records when he read in the Birmingham
News that the "Original Sacred Harp Musical Association"
would be having its 1927 annual convention at the Jefferson County
Courthouse on July 22-25 and expected singers from across the state
and from Atlanta. (At the time, The Sacred Harp book used at this
event had the title The Original Sacred Harp.) The fact that the
gathering outgrew the courthouse and was moved to the municipal
auditorium for its Sunday session would indicate such a market.
Soule may have attended the convention and heard more than a thousand
singers piping out the archaic, vigorous music, then joined them
in a traditional dinner-on-the-grounds at Woodrow Wilson Park outside.
Or he may have visited one of the local singings held at the courthouse
on the 4th Sunday of each month. In sum, there were many occasions
where Soule might have encountered Sacred Harp, and many singers
he might have chosen to record.
At one of these gatherings he met song leader James T. Vaughn.
According to Mr. Vaughn's sons, a representative of the Gennett
Company approached him and asked him to put together a group of
singers for a recording. He did so, but the group came to be called
J. T. Allison's Sacred Harp Singers. Perhaps this was done out of
respect for the group's oldest member, or perhaps it was done to
avoid confusion with another well-known singer and composer, James
D. Vaughan, a powerhouse of the "little book" or "new
book" Southern gospel singing that was also popular at the
time. In fact, Vaughan had been selling gospel records pressed by
the Starr Piano Company since 1922.
On August 10, a group of men and women assembled by James T. Vaughn
gathered in the studio (reported by the Birmingham News to have
cost $275,000) on the third floor of the Starr Piano Company, 1820
3rd Avenue North. They recorded two songs, "I'm A Long Time
Traveling Away From Home" ("White," The Sacred Harp,
page 288) and "I Belong to this Band-Hallelujah" ("Ragan,"
page 176), which were released in November of 1927. Apparently the
first effort was deemed a success, for the singers were invited
to travel, indeed, a long way from home, this time to Gennett's
home studio in Richmond, Indiana, where they would record on May
Members of G. T. Allison's family believe that his wife Liddie
may have sung on the Birmingham recordings; however, it seems that
no women traveled to Richmond. A photograph presumably taken at
the Richmond session is our only clue to the identity of the singers
who made the trip. Family and friends have identified them as (left
to right) J. T. Vaughn, Tom Bradshaw, John Praytor, George T. Allison,
and James T. Allison. Of Tom Bradshaw we know nothing and of John
Praytor, we have been told only that he had a wonderful bass voice.
The photo indicates that he was the pianist on the recordings.
J. T. Vaughn led music at the Moody Baptist Church in Moody, Alabama, a rural community east of Birmingham. He read music and sang all kinds, including southern gospel convention music. Unlike the four-shape Sacred Harp music, southern gospel music, which was printed in paperback books in the modern seven-note "do-re-mi" scale, was centered on the piano. Perhaps it was Vaughn's idea to have the piano or pump organ accompany each selection. His sons felt that he may have been attempting to make the old a cappella music more popular to modern listeners by adding an instrumental accompaniment. Unfortunately, Mr. Vaughn did not live long after making these recordings. A railroad inspector for Central of Georgia Railroad, he died of typhoid fever after drinking from a spring near a worksite. His tombstone reads, "James T. Vaughn, January 26, 1893-October 30, 1928, "Singing in Heaven."
Also from Moody was George T. Allison (1876-1959). At the time
of the recordings he was living in north Birmingham where he worked
at a pipe foundry, though prior to that he worked on the family
farm near Moody. He and his wife Liddie returned to Moody, where
both died in 1959 and are buried. Surprisingly, he was not kin to
the group's namesake.
James Thomas Allison (1869-1939) was raised in the Moody area but
spent his adult life in Birmingham where he is buried. A carpenter
and clock repairman, he stood six feet tall, wore seersucker suits,
loved to tease, play dominos, go squirrel hunting and argue politics.
According to his granddaughter, Margaret Jones, he was a beloved
father whose six children thought he "hung the moon."
In Richmond the singers reported to the recording studio/piano factory located in a gorge made by the Whitewater River. As with other folk performers they had little, if any, recording experience, and they faced the myriad of technical difficulties of early recording. In spite of this, it is entirely possible that the Allisons-with their background in Sacred Harp singing-proceeded through their repertoire with few second-takes. In their one day in the studio they recorded thirty songs; all but two were released in the following year. Any contemporary recording artist would marvel-and we should also-at the concentration and stamina necessary to record thirty songs in a day.
There is little we can know for certain about the decisions that
affected the style of the recordings, but informed speculation will
suggest some possibilities. The two Birmingham tracks, "I'm
A Long Time Traveling" (Track 18) and "I Belong To This
Band" (Track 19), feature a larger group with female voices.
The females are absent on all the Richmond tracks, since, as discussed
above, they did not make the trip.
In Sacred Harp tradition, men do not normally sing the alto part,
so the men on recording would not have customarily sung this part.
Probably for this reason, the alto is omitted from the Richmond
recordings. It is also inaudible in the Birmingham sessions, suggesting
that the altos would not have been close to the microphone. All
of this leads us to the conclusion that the alto part could not
have been of vital importance to the Allisons. It could be that
all of this was a matter of who got to go on the trip. But there
is unproven speculation that the alto part had not yet been fully
accepted at the time the Allisons recorded, and we are led to wonder
if that might also have been a factor.
Another distinctive feature of the recording is the absence of
fuguing tunes, which were a trademark component of the New England
singing school repertory and later of that of the shape-note tunebooks.
Fuguing tunes feature a chorus with cascading entrances of the parts.
Fuguing tunes are generally more difficult than strophic hymns,
but the Allisons display a level of competence above what would
have been necessary for fugues. It is possible that they simply
preferred other songs to fugues, but it is also possible that, having
decided to omit the alto, they would not want to feature songs where
the parts make individual and discernible entrances.
Organs and pianos would have been uncommon and probably frowned
upon or even disallowed at traditional Sacred Harp singings. But
the Allisons were not the only group to use them on recordings,
probably suggesting that recording ensembles felt some license or
obligation to make their music accommodating to the tastes of the
general public. Still, one wonders if there was not encouragement
or even pressure from Starr Piano executives to feature the instruments
that their company manufactured. Curiously, the organist fills out
the thirds in the open chords that are so distinctive in Sacred
Harp music, and even resolves minor songs to major in the closing
On two tracks, "The Old Ship of Zion" (Track 3) and "Traveling
Pilgrim" (Track 9), there is no instrumental accompaniment.
The latter of these is a minor piece that features a quarter-note
C-sharp (on the word "more"). This note is printed in
The Sacred Harp as C-natural, and is rendered as C-sharp because
of the so-called "dorian minor" in which the sixth degree
of the minor scale is raised in singing practice of Sacred Harp
tradition. (This is described on page eighteen in the "Rudiments"
section of the current edition of The Sacred Harp.) An instrumentalist
would likely have played this as C-natural, resulting in a noticeable
discord with the choral performance.
In "Jewett" (Track 10), one of the tenors sings a solo
for each verse, and the rest of the group enters with their part
at the chorus. It would be unlikely that this practice came from
singing tradition; probably it was a clever idea to accommodate
public tastes. Also, in several songs-such as "Antioch"
(Track 5), "Sweet Rivers" (Track 6), and "Heaven's
My Home" (Track 21)-there are lyrical pauses at the end of
phrases. Normally songs such as these would be sung straight through
at the phrase breaks, although regional traditions develop that
govern how particular songs are sung. In any case, only the most
skillful and authoritative leader could get a group to alter traditional
practice at a Sacred Harp singing. So it may be that this was a
local tradition in their family or area, or a clever stylistic embellishment
that they practiced for the recording.
The performances on the recording are relatively crisp and polished, suggesting experience singing together beyond attendance at public singings. The singers clip or sustain phrase endings, alter pronunciation of words, and slur or ornament block chord changes all in such a way as to suggest experience as a group. They render the shapes with facility, indicating familiarity with and deference to Sacred Harp tradition.
The Allison Recordings in Perspective
The commercial country music recordings by groups such as the Allisons
represent the earliest recordings of Sacred Harp singing. Never
again would the commercial recording world take a systematic interest
in Sacred Harp singing. Moreover, since the development of the topical
reissue market in the 1960s, this CD by County Records is the first
album devoted entirely to Sacred Harp reissues. These circumstances
form an intriguing story, reflecting the lengthy encounter of sound
recording with a musical community that values the singing experience
above all else.
After the period of commercial 78s, interest developed among folklorists
in recording singing events in their own setting, rather than in
a studio. The first field recording of a public singing, where portable
equipment was brought to a traditional singing event, was not made
until 1938. With limited resources, folklorist John W. Work recorded
a portion of a singing in Dothan, Alabama, from The Colored Sacred
Harp, an African-American edition of the book. Later, folklorists
Alan Lomax and George Pullen Jackson, representing the Library of
Congress, recorded much of the 1942 Alabama State Convention, held
Throughout the history of recorded Sacred Harp, there have been
singers who, like the Allisons, assembled an ensemble for a studio
recording more polished than the performance at a traditional singing
event. The motivation to do this is always a curious mix of ambitions-personal
recognition as an exceptional performer and also recognition for
a beloved singing tradition that is, in its very nature, beyond
the reach of public taste for recorded music. All such endeavors,
at least in some measure, succeed in bringing attention to Sacred
Harp; some, such as the 1978 Nonesuch LP "Rivers of Delight,"
connect with a receptive population of listeners and bring a new
generation of singers to Sacred Harp tradition.
Thus there is a view held by many that performing ensembles such
as the Allisons are considered to be outside the mainstream of authentic
singing tradition. The stylistic license taken by the group only
intensifies that view. But not everyone holds to this, and there
have been some intriguing arguments in defense of the authenticity
of the commercial 78s.
In the introduction to his Sacred Harp recording discography, written
at a time when folklorists still viewed commercial recordings with
some skepticism, Harlan Daniel noted that the recording companies
were the first to recognize the cultural value of fa-sol-la tradition.
"In 1922," he wrote, "ten years before George Pullen
Jackson brought Sacred Harp to the attention of folklorists, Brunswick
not only recorded Sacred Harp singers but was sufficiently cognizant
of the archaic interest of the four shaped notes to assume the extra
expense of printing them on the record label." While it is
true that the recording companies properly assessed the value of
southern folk music, this was most often not an aesthetic judgement-some
talent scouts, in fact, were notoriously disdainful of southern
More recently, popular music critic Greil Marcus has speculated
about the motives of the extraordinary recording artists who performed
at the southern field studios. The recordings were made at a time
when sound technologies-radios and phonographs-were establishing
their grasp on American popular musical culture. The recording artists
perceived this clearly, and sought out the recording sessions in
order to connect themselves and their region with the nation at
large and thereby proclaim their cultural existence. They were not
anomalies of tradition but emissaries, unique in their motivation
and capability to bring their music to the nation.
Anomalies or emissaries? This is not a question easily settled.
What is striking, however, is the way this dialectic has continued
to play out within the singing community. The tradition of public
singings-originally established as a means to secure the popularity
of the book in times and places beyond the reach of the compilers-has
proved itself an amazingly adaptable structure. Even in the contemporary
era, when the hyperfidelity of digital recording technology has
become pervasive in popular tastes, the traditional singing event
is still the aesthetic yardstick by with Sacred Harp recordings
Much has changed today. Modern life led many away from Sacred Harp,
but it has also made Sacred Harp accessible to a great many new
singers. Beginning in the 1970s, there occurred an amazing spread
to new areas northward and westward. Southern traditional singers
traveled to the new areas, taught singing schools, and helped local
groups organize singings and conventions. Nowadays, one can connect
to fasola homepage on the internet and find singings and local groups
in most states and several foreign countries.
Within in the singing community, there is an acute interest in the historical background of Sacred Harp singing. Singers have overseen the reprinting of out-of-print tunebooks and participated in the revival of singing traditions. A widespread "fellowship of Harpers" shares personal communion not only through singing events but also in email discussion groups. The scholarly study of fasola tradition, once the exclusive province of scholarly publications, is now a matter of public history in which many interested singers participate. For a great many reasons, the long-awaited release of the commercial recordings by the Allisons and others is an occasion for celebration.
Thanks to Robert Nobely and Mrs. Chester Vaughn for helping us obtain Allison recordings. Joyce Cauthen's research for this project was done under the auspices of the Alabama Folklife Association.
1 - Heavenly Port (Sacred Harp, page 378). Organ accompaniment.
2 - Bound for Canaan (82). Organ accompaniment.
3 - The Old Ship of Zion (79)
4 - Exhilaration (170). Organ accompaniment.
5 - Antioch (277)
6 - Sweet Rivers (61). Organ accompaniment.
7 - Hallelujah (146). Organ accompaniment.
8 - The Golden Harp (274). Organ accompaniment.
9 - Traveling Pilgrim (278b)
10 - Jewett (105). Organ accompaniment.
11 - Pisgah (58)
12 - Sweet Prospect (65)
13 - Weeping Pilgrim (417)
14 - Sweet Canaan (87). Organ accompaniment.
15 - Penick (387)
16 - The Morning Trumpet (85)
17 - Ester (37). Organ accompaniment.
18 - I'm A Long Time Traveling ("White," 288). Organ accompaniment.
19 - I Belong To This Band ("Ragan," 176). Organ accompaniment.
20 - Sweet Morning (421)
21 - Heaven's My Home (119). Organ accompaniment.
In 2004 County Records produced the following CDs of singing by the Allisons and other Sacred Harp ensembles. These are digitally remastered versions of very rare recordings on Gennett and other labels:
Allison's Sacred Harp Singers CD: Heaven's My Home 1927-1928 features
21 selections of this Birmingham area group.
Religion is a Fortune Sacred Harp Singing: Various Groups - Early
1900s includes 4 more songs by the Allisons with 15 recordings by
other Sacred Harp ensembles from Alabama and Georgia on various
These CDs may be ordered from County Sales, www.countysales.com,
or from the Alabama Folklife Association, www.Alabamafolklife.org
which offers other CDs, books and a video about Sacred Harp singing.